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Intrigue enshrouds talks venue

The plush imperial villa where former U.S. president Bill Clinton stayed in 1998.
The plush imperial villa where former U.S. president Bill Clinton stayed in 1998.

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BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- It is a sprawling, lush retreat where palace and political intrigue unfolded behind closed doors for centuries.

This week, the Diaoyutai State Guest House in western Beijing will, once again, be the venue of talks bringing together North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan and China to try to defuse a crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Built more than 800 years ago, Diaoyutai was a retreat for Chinese emperors who sought rest and recreation while poets drew inspiration from its scenic gardens and lake. Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, met there to plot the downfall of political rival Deng Xiaoping in the mid 1970s.

An official with Diaoyutai's armed guard detail said security at the walled complex had been stepped up for the talks, due to start on Wednesday after six months of diplomacy to pull the sides together again after an inconclusive first round. He declined to give details.

Even without talks, paramilitary police guard the gates and cars and visitors need passes to enter. Surveillance cameras scan the 420,000 square metre (4.5 million square foot) grounds.

Peacocks wander the lawns and mandarin ducks and swans swim on the lake at Diaoyutai, which derived its name from its role as a "fishing platform" for the emperors.

It became a guest house in 1958 and villas were built to house dignitaries visiting the next year for celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

Now it is an exclusive spot for visiting world leaders.

"It enables the Chinese to put up at least the leaders of a number of delegations close to each other without their falling over each other," said Roderick MacFarquhar, chairman of the Department of Government at Harvard University.

"It conveys respect to whomever is put up there," he added.

'Walls have ears'

Diaoyutai was opened to non-VIP tourists and businessmen from 1980. Rates start at $298 a night for a standard room.

Tourists peer into one the state house's guest rooms.
Tourists peer into one the state house's guest rooms.

Kim Il Sung, the late father of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, stayed at Building No 12 when he visited and planted a pine tree to symbolise everlasting friendship.

Mao preferred the first-floor quarters for aides and bodyguards at Building No 12. His wife watched Western movies in a nearby villa.

The late Premier Zhou Enlai opted for Building No 5, where Henry Kissinger stayed on his secret 1970-71 visits to pave the way for U.S. President Richard Nixon's landmark trip in 1972.

"If a foreigner's presence has to be kept secret then the Diaoyutai is appropriate," MacFarquhar said.

Nixon stayed at two-storey Building No 18, the usual quarters for visiting heads of state. Now, it costs $50,000 a night.

Other guests have included Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, French President Francois Mitterrand, Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

When Clinton stayed in 1998, American officials were warned "the walls have ears."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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